Sunday, 4 June, 2023

Public Toilets How To Keep Them Clean


Devendra Gautam

In the midnight of December 24, 2021, a medical emergency came knocking at our door.
A serious call on the night of our yearly Kul Pooja and a day before the Christmas made even a questioner like yours truly wonder if the high heavens were indeed angry with this lesser mortal for his failure to propitiate them.

But that was not the time to think too deep about divinity as humanity was in need of help.
So, yours truly let those unsettling thoughts pass like a whiff of icy cold winter air, called up the ambulance and rushed the patient to the hospital.

Thanks be to the heavens and all those magical medical beings at the hospital, all things turned just fine and we returned home early next morning, grateful as ever.
By the way, did yours truly just hear something? Was it someone urging me to stop beating about the bush and come straight to the point?
Before proceeding any further, a question for you guys: What part of your house should be kept the cleanest of all?

Health Risk
The dirtiest part: The loos, I would say, for obvious reasons.
Given their high standards of health, hygiene and sanitation on account of the risk of spread of all sorts of diseases, one would think that toilets located at hospitals would be the cleanest places on Planet Earth!
Let’s return to December 24 for an encounter with reality, then.

With the drain pipe clogged, a pool of filth had formed in the wash basin just next to the emergency ward of the hospital, letting all sorts of worms and germs have a good time amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the omicron scare! The floor awaited cleaning too, what with heavy footfall of patients and their attendants. The toilet had running water and that was some relief, for sure.

This is not to mean that all toilets located at the hospital were at their filthiest. For example, the ladies and gents located just outside the main building were squeaky clean. But with no signs placed anywhere, finding them required a bit of exploration and imagination, a tough ask during the nature’s desperate calls! This probably meant that the easy-to-locate toilet attracted the most visitors, overwhelming the sanitary staff and rendering it very unclean.
A recent visit to a college in Lainchaur (just a happenstance) again brought back horrors no different.
Ordeals like these are nothing new for millions of us. Many of us have found that government offices in general have the filthiest of toilets meant for the public, while those for their employees are kept shiny, sanitised and locked at all times to prevent their ‘misuse’. Impossible to find such level of disrespect or contempt even for the taxpayer anywhere else! What say you, guys?

Umpteen times, many of us have returned from the very doors of public toilets, repulsed. Countless times, we have heaved a sigh of relief upon finding tolerably clean toilets at commercial buildings, centres of faith or relieving ourselves out in the open, joining in 673 million people worldwide, who, according to the Unicef website, defecate in the open.
Indeed, this is no time to keep resting on our laurels – of becoming South Asia’s first open-defecation free (ODF) country – and look down on 40% of the world’s population, which, according to, does not have access to toilets.

Anyway, the general condition of our public toilets reflects poorly on our hard-earned status as an ODF country. So, the time to start keeping our public toilets is now, especially amidst recurring waves of the pandemic when unclean loos can cause further spread of the ever-mutating virus.
In matters of the public loos, yours truly had enlightening conversation with some government officials/ experts on the topic at hand.

Project Manager of the Kathmandu Valley Wastewater Management Project, Er Chandra Kumar Pan Shrestha, suggests building public toilets close to junctions or markets. Other suggestions include ensuring institutional arrangements before construction of public toilets, ensuring that water is available round the clock and the toilets are well-ventilated, arrangements for regular maintenance of these facilities and the installation of self-cleaning systems as far as possible. His prescriptions also include provision of disabled-friendly facilities and a plumbing system that makes sure that the neighboring environment is not disturbed by nuisance produced from public toilets.

Bharat Prasad Acharya, WASH Consultant, suggests introducing strict laws and ensuring their full implementation on the operation of public toilets based on terms of reference for the operators -- individuals or institutions. Public toilets should have easy access to water, he says, adding: The public should know who the operators of these facilities are, along with the monitoring agencies. Operators of public toilets charge the users even when water, electricity, soap and cleanliness are lacking, Acharya notes, adding that this practice should stop.
He has advice for the users of public toilets too: They should follow the applicable rules, realising that the onus is on them as well to ensure smooth operation of the public facility.

Indeed, each of us should ask ourselves a couple of questions like:
Do we ever bother to leave public toilets in usable condition after using them? Do we bother to flush/poor water after long term/short term?
Is spitting paan/gutkha/tobacco in these loos a permissible behaviour?
And how about scribbling all sorts of messages on those walls?
Conversation with frontline sanitary staff has made yours truly wonder whether better toilet training, regardless of their ages, is also necessary. If that does not work, how about some tough punitive action like public toilet cleaning duties?

Prakash Amatya, CEO, AEROSAN Sustainable Social Enterprise Model for Sanitation, argues that three anomalies are behind the present mess plaguing public toilets here.
They are, according to Amatya:
1) Rent-oriented policy and the practice of selecting operators of public toilets through tender. Annually, the metropolis (Kathmandu Metropolitan City) collects anywhere between Rs 17 lakh and Rs 61 lakh in rent from each toilet located around Ratnapark.

2) The lack of applicable standards for public toilets, operation and management guidelines and the lack of a designated monitoring agency.
3) The lack of political will has also hampered the expansion of public toilets. By constructing and operating public toilets in Kathmandu and Lalitpur, we have presented a successful model, says Amatya.

Commercially Viable
He adds: Public toilets are not mere infrastructure. They should be commercially viable and they should cause minimal impact on the environment.
Looking back, the declaration of Nepal as an ODF country (on September 30, 2019) was a milestone in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. At least after this declaration, we should have joined hands to clean up public toilets, but that has hardly happened.

Successive waves of the pandemic have alarmed us that unclean public toilets pose a very very serious threat to public health.
So, it’s time for our exceptionally competent authorities to wake up to this threat and act by shouldering their respective responsibilities. The onus is also on the conscious citizenry to keep raising their voices till these authorities get their acts together to ensure that these loos are safe and clean, and pose no serious threat to public health.

(Gautam is a freelancer)